Maine high court upholds sentence for man convicted of assaulting wife

During a recess at Penobscot Superior Court, Ryan Witmer briefly turns towards the gallery behind him while conferring with his defense team--Portland attorneys Daniel Lilley(left, standing) and Darrick Banda (cq) (seated, right) Monday afternoon, October 26, 2009. Witmer, of Eddington, was charged with trying to kill his estranged wife and her male friend in the summer of 2008. (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ)
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During a recess at Penobscot Superior Court, Ryan Witmer briefly turns towards the gallery behind him while conferring with his defense team--Portland attorneys Daniel Lilley(left, standing) and Darrick Banda (cq) (seated, right) Monday afternoon, October 26, 2009. Witmer, of Eddington, was charged with trying to kill his estranged wife and her male friend in the summer of 2008. (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ)
Posted Jan. 07, 2011, at 8:24 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:31 a.m.

PORTLAND — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Wednesday unanimously upheld the four-year sentence imposed a year ago on an Eddington man for violating a protection order and assaulting his estranged wife.

A jury in November 2009 acquitted Ryan Witmer, 34, of the more serious charges of aggravated attempted murder, elevated aggravated assault, aggravated assault and burglary after a 5 1/2 day trial. He had no previous criminal record.

Justices heard oral arguments on Witmer’s appeal in November at the Penobscot Judicial Center.

Portland attorney Darrick Banda argued that Superior Court Justice William Anderson illegally relied on conduct of which Witmer, 34, was acquitted after a jury trial. The sentence was imposed on Dec. 29, 2009.

Susan Pope, assistant district attorney for Penobscot County, who handled the appeal, disagreed. She told justices last year that Anderson relied on Witmer’s own testimony during the trial to fashion a sentence justified by the defendant’s actions, which included kicking in a locked door from the garage to the house.

She also noted that the sentence of four years was less than the maximum sentence of five years for a Class C crime.

Witmer was accused of breaking into the Orrington home he previously shared with his then-estranged wife and attacking her and her boyfriend late on the evening of June 28, 2008.

The boyfriend, who has a black belt in tae kwon do, a Korean self-defense art, suffered 11 stab wounds in his back. Witmer’s wife, who had taken out a protection order to keep him away from her, suffered superficial cuts to her forearms, according to court documents.

“The record plainly indicates that the court focused on the manner in which Witmer committed the particular crime of which he was convicted, and the court was not required to ignore these facts merely because they also related to other crimes of which Witmer was acquitted,” Chief Justice Leigh Saufley wrote for the court in a 14-page decision. “In such circumstances, a sentencing court is not required to disregard facts that result in a conviction simply because some of those facts may also have been relevant to other charges of which the defendant was acquitted.”

Efforts Friday to reach prosecutor Pope were unsuccessful.

Witmer’s defense attorney strongly objected to the decision.

The opinion “gives judges license to ignore the collective wisdom of the people in sentencing individuals for criminal activity,” Banda said in an e-mail. He emphasized that jurors found Witmer’s use of force was justified in the circumstances.

“The simple truth is this: people in this state do not get four-year prison terms for a protective order violation involving a push,” Banda said. “Results are often easy to rationalize in this business, particularly when you are dealing with the nuances of sentencing. Everyone appreciates that on the face of things, this was an ugly case.

“But beyond the headlines, this was not a case of ‘violent stabbings’ as the court’s opinion characterizes it,” he concluded. “It was a case of Ryan fighting for his life against an experienced assailant, as the jury found. We must and do respect the Supreme Court’s decision, but continue to believe that the punishment far exceeded the crime.”

In an unrelated case, Witmer is scheduled to go on trial next month at the Penobscot Judicial Center on one count of Class B theft by unauthorized taking. He pleaded not guilty in May to taking more than $35,000 from the Bangor mortgage company he ran with a partner.

Since the assault, Witmer’s ex-wife and the man who was stabbed have married. Earlier this year, they filed a lawsuit in Penobscot County Superior Court against Witmer seeking unspecified damages. That case also is pending.

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